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Computing and artificial intelligence: Humanistic perspectives from MIT

How the humanities, arts, and social science fields can help shape the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing — and benefit from advanced computing.


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Emily Hiestand
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Phone: 617-324-2043
Office of the Dean, School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing (SCC) will reorient the Institute to bring the power of computing and artificial intelligence to all fields at MIT, and to allow the future of computing and AI to be shaped by all MIT disciplines.

To support ongoing planning for the new college, Dean Melissa Nobles invited faculty from all 14 of MIT’s humanistic disciplines in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences to respond to two questions:  

1) What domain knowledge, perspectives, and methods from your field should be integrated into the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, and why?

2) What are some of the meaningful opportunities that advanced computing makes possible in your field? 

As Nobles says in her foreword to the series, “Together, the following responses to these two questions offer something of a guidebook to the myriad, productive ways that technical, humanistic, and scientific fields can join forces at MIT, and elsewhere, to further human and planetary well-being.”

The following excerpts highlight faculty responses, with links to full commentaries. The excerpts are sequenced by fields in the following order: the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

Foreword by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science and the Kenan Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

“The advent of artificial intelligence presents our species with an historic opportunity — disguised as an existential challenge: Can we stay human in the age of AI?  In fact, can we grow in humanity, can we shape a more humane, more just, and sustainable world? With a sense of promise and urgency, we are embarked at MIT on an accelerated effort to more fully integrate the technical and humanistic forms of discovery in our curriculum and research, and in our habits of mind and action.” Read more >>

Comparative Media Studies: William Uricchio, professor of comparative media studies

在线免费观看“Given our research and practice focus, the CMS perspective can be key for understanding the implications of computation for knowledge and representation, as well as computation’s relationship to the critical process of how knowledge works in culture — the way it is formed, shared, and validated.”

Recommended action: “Bring media and computer scholars together to explore issues that require both areas of expertise: text-generating algorithms (that force us to ask what it means to be human); the nature of computational gatekeepers (that compels us to reflect on implicit cultural priorities); and personalized filters and texts (that require us to consider the shape of our own biases).” Read more >>

Global Languages: Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations

“Language and culture learning are gateways to international experiences and an important means to develop cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity. Such understanding is essential to addressing the social and ethical implications of the expanding array of technology affecting everyday life across the globe.”

Recommended action: “We aim to create a 21st-century language center to provide a convening space for cross-cultural communication, collaboration, action research, and global classrooms. We also plan to keep the intimate size and human experience of MIT’s language classes, which only increase in value as technology saturates the world.” Read more >>

History: Jeffrey Ravel, professor of history and head of MIT History

在线免费观看“Emerging innovations in computational methods will continue to improve our access to the past and the tools through which we interpret evidence. But the field of history will continue to be served by older methods of scholarship as well; critical thinking by human beings is fundamental to our endeavors in the humanities.”

Recommended action: “Call on the nuanced debates in which historians engage about causality to provide a useful frame of reference for considering the issues that will inevitably emerge from new computing technologies. This methodology of the history field is a powerful way to help imagine our way out of today’s existential threats.” Read more >>

Linguistics: Faculty of MIT Linguistics

在线免费观看“Perhaps the most obvious opportunities for computational and linguistics research concern the interrelation between specific hypotheses about the formal properties of language and their computational implementation in the form of systems that learn, parse, and produce human language.”

Recommended action: “Critically, transformative new tools have come from researchers at institutions where linguists work side-by-side with computational researchers who are able to translate back and forth between computational properties of linguistic grammars and of other systems.” Read more >>

Literature: Shankar Raman, with Mary C. Fuller, professors of literature

“In the age of AI, we could invent new tools for reading. Making the expert reading skills we teach MIT students even partially available to readers outside the academy would widen access to our materials in profound ways.”

Recommended action: At least three priorities of current literary engagement with the digital should be integrated into the SCC’s research and curriculum: democratization of knowledge; new modes of and possibilities for knowledge production; and critical analysis of the social conditions governing what can be known and who can know it.” Read more >>

Philosophy: Alex Byrne, professor of philosophy and head of MIT Philosophy; and Tamar Schapiro, associate professor of philosophy

在线免费观看“Computing and AI pose many ethical problems related to: privacy (e.g., data systems design), discrimination (e.g., bias in machine learning), policing (e.g., surveillance), democracy (e.g., the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal), remote warfare, intellectual property, political regulation, and corporate responsibility.”

Recommended action: “The SCC presents an opportunity for MIT to be an intellectual leader in the ethics of technology. The ethics lab we propose could turn this opportunity into reality.” Read more >>

Science, Technology, and Society: Eden Medina and Dwaipayan Banerjee, associate professors of science, technology, and society

在线免费观看“A more global view of computing would demonstrate a broader range of possibilities than one centered on the American experience, while also illuminating how computer systems can reflect and respond to different needs and systems. Such experiences can prove generative for thinking about the future of computing writ large.”

Recommended action: “Adopt a global approach to the research and teaching in the SCC, an approach that views the U.S. experience as one among many.” Read more >>

Women's and Gender Studies: Ruth Perry, the Ann Friedlaender Professor of Literature; with Sally Haslanger, the Ford Professor of Philosophy, and Elizabeth Wood, professor of history

“The SCC presents MIT with a unique opportunity to take a leadership role in addressing some of most pressing challenges that have emerged from the role computing technologies play in our society — including how these technologies are reinforcing social inequalities.”

Recommended action: “Ensure that women’s voices are heard and that coursework and research is designed with a keen awareness of the difference that gender makes. This is the single-most powerful way that MIT can address the inequities in the computing fields.” Read more >>

Writing: Tom Levenson, professor of science writing

在线免费观看“Computation and its applications in fields that directly affect society cannot be an unexamined good. Professional science and technology writers are a crucial resource for the mission of new college of computing, and they need to be embedded within its research apparatus.”

Recommended action: “Intertwine writing and the ideas in coursework to provide conceptual depth that purely technical mastery cannot offer.” Read more >>

Music: Eran Egozy, professor of the practice in music technology

在线免费观看“Creating tomorrow’s music systems responsibly will require a truly multidisciplinary education, one that covers everything from scientific models and engineering challenges to artistic practice and societal implications. The new music technology will be accompanied by difficult questions. Who owns the output of generative music algorithms that are trained on human compositions? How do we ensure that music, an art form intrinsic to all humans, does not become controlled by only a few?”

Recommended action: Through the SCC, our responsibility will be not only to develop the new technologies of music creation, distribution, and interaction, but also to study their cultural implications and define the parameters of a harmonious outcome for all.” Read more >>

Theater Arts: Sara Brown, assistant professor of theater arts and MIT Theater Arts director of design

在线免费观看“As a subject, AI problematizes what is means to be human. There are an unending series of questions posed by the presence of an intelligent machine. The theater, as a synthetic art form that values and exploits liveness, is an ideal place to explore the complex and layered problems posed by AI and advanced computing.”

Recommended action: “There are myriad opportunities for advanced computing to be integrated into theater, both as a tool and as a subject of exploration. As a tool, advanced computing can be used to develop performance systems that respond directly to a live performer in real time, or to integrate virtual reality as a previsualization tool for designers.” Read more >>

Anthropology: Heather Paxson, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology

“The methods used in anthropology — a field that systematically studies human cultural beliefs and practices — are uniquely suited to studying the effects of automation and digital technologies in human cultures. For anthropologists, ‘Can artificial intelligence be ethical?’ is an empirical, not a hypothetical, question. Ethical for what? To whom? Under what circumstances?”

Recommended action: “Incorporate anthropological thinking into the new college to prepare students to live and work effectively and responsibly in a world of technological, demographic, and cultural exchanges. We envision an ethnography lab that will provide digital and computing tools tailored to anthropological research and projects.” Read more >>

Economics: Nancy L. Rose, the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics and head of the Department of Economics; and David Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics and co-director of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future

“The intellectual affinity between economics and computer science traces back almost a century, to the founding of game theory in 1928. Today, the practical synergies between economics and computer science are flourishing. We outline some of the many opportunities for the two disciplines to engage more deeply through the new SCC.”

Recommended action: “Research that engages the tools and expertise of economics on matters of fairness, expertise, and cognitive biases in machine-supported and machine-delegated decision-making; and on market design, industrial organization, and the future of work. Scholarship at the intersection of data science, econometrics, and causal inference. Cultivate depth in network science, algorithmic game theory and mechanism design, and online learning. Develop tools for rapid, cost-effective, and ongoing education and retraining for workers.” Read more >>

Political Science: Faculty of the Department of Political Science

在线免费观看“The advance of computation gives rise to a number of conceptual and normative questions that are political, rather than ethical in character. Political science and theory have a significant role in addressing such questions as: How do major players in the technology sector seek to legitimate their authority to make decisions that affect us all? And where should that authority actually reside in a democratic polity?”

Recommended action: “Incorporate the research and perspectives of political science in SCC research and education to help ensure that computational research is socially aware, especially with issues involving governing institutions, the relations between nations, and human rights.” Read more >>

Series prepared by SHASS Communications
Series Editor and Designer: Emily Hiestand
Series Co-Editor: Kathryn O’Neill


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